Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mesa Mexicana

Mesa Mexicana is one of many cookbooks by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, owners of the Border Grill in Santa Monica (where I have eaten more times than I can remember), also known as television’s “Two Hot Tamales.” They also briefly hosted KCRW’s “Good Food,” which I listened to religiously on Saturday mornings. (They left radio when they made it to television, and “Good Food” got a new host, Evan Kleinman.)

I bought this cookbook at least two years ago, but this week made my first foray into cooking Mexican cuisine (other than the standard American-style burritos, enchiladas and huevos rancheros we make all the time). This was a lot of work, and also a lot of fun. I should add that I was also motivated by having some delicious homemade salsa made for me by a grad student (I won it in the EGSA auction), which made me think, why don’t I make my own salsa? It can’t be that hard – and it isn’t.

My immersion into Mexican cooking, in which I spent about four days this week (maybe 20 hours total?) taught me a lot about ingredients and preparation. The most enlightening was making all the salsas and sauces that went into this rather elaborate four-course meal; the salsas are delicious because of the use of fresh ingredients, deriving flavors in part from roasting (without fat) and complex combinations of ingredients. For that reason most of these salsas and sauces are surprisingly low in calories while at the same time quite rich and flavorful.

Here’s a list of the items I prepared; asterisks indicate the recipes I will provide below:

Salsas and sauces:
Roasted tomato salsa
Chipotle salsa
*Tomatillo salsa
(my favorite of the salsas)
Roasted tomatillo salsa
Achiote sauce
Roasted pepper and achiote sauce
Achiote citrus marinade
(for the chicken that went into the Guatemalan tamales)

*Roasted achiote citrus chicken
Pickled chipotles (I did not serve this! I put it aside for future preparations.)

*Creamy rajas (served on corn tortillas, which I did NOT make myself!
Chiles rellenos
Cheese and green chile tamales
Guatemalan tamales
(these contain the roasted chicken)
Fried plantains
Braised fennel with mustard greens


Kahlúa Chip Ice Cream (I didn’t serve this because my freezer isn’t cold enough! It was a bust, but in fact the recipe itself is absolutely delicious. I just need a colder freezer. I'm going to see if I can get Sparky's to make this recipe.)

In the process of making this meal, I learned a lot about roasting vegetables, chiefly peppers. I roasted more than 30 large peppers (24 poblanos and 8 red bell peppers); I also roasted tomatillos, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, and garlic for the two roasted salsas. The cookbook gave some confusing instructions; for the roasted tomato salsa it said to roast (broil) the vegetables for 15 minutes. But the salsa ended up not having enough roasted flavor, and I realized that 15 minutes wasn’t long enough. In the front of the cookbook it says to roast them “until everything but the garlic is totally blackened.” This took a lot longer than 15 minutes in my oven.

Not only is it possible to under-roast the peppers, it’s also easy to over-roast them, which happened on my last batch of roasting, when I kind of forgot about them for a while. When that happens, and you try to peel them, it turns out there’s really no flesh left.

Working with achiote paste, a Yucatecan ingredient, was interesting; the cookbook says it “should always be cooked first to remove any chalkiness.” However, it does not explain how you should cook it, and in the recipes asking for achiote paste, instructions on cooking it ahead of time are not included. What I did was pan-fry it (without oil) for 5 minutes or so, then could use it in recipes.

The other “new” (to me) ingredient I used was Mexican crema, which was just a garnish which I served with the fried plantains. This stuff is delicious! It’s sweeter than sour cream, and has a similar consistency, maybe a little more liquidy.

Then there are the three Mexican cheeses that are described in the cookbook as Manchego, Anejo (also known as Cotija), and Panela. At my local Mexican market, none of the cheeses use the name Manchego or Panela. Instead they have Queso Enchilado, a dry crumbling cheese which I used for Panela, and Queso Chihuahua, a melting cheese for quesadillas, which I used for Manchego. (Note: I was just at Hy-Vee today and discovered they do have the Mexican Manchego, as well as a couple others not seen at the Mexican Market – Queso Fresco and Oaxacano. See notes and links at the end of this post.)

Here are Mary Sue and Susan’s comments on Manchego: “There are two kinds of manchego used in Mexican cooking – and neither is the high-priced Spanish variety sold in upscale cheese shops. There is a hard variety (called viejo) and a soft, semifirm, golden one that is an excellent melter. The soft one is used most often for cooking. Monterey Jack or muenster can be substituted.”

As for peppers, I made the chile rellenos with poblanos, and also used dried chipotles (for the chipotle salsa) and fresh jalapeños. I’m looking forward to trying some of the recipes that use other chiles, such as fresh anchos.

The biggest challenge for me was making the masa for tamales, and I’m not sure that I will attempt this again soon. The directions in the cookbook were not adequate for me, I think I will need someone who knows what they’re doing to show me how to mix it up. Nonetheless, these two tamale recipes were quite good, and unusual, because they mix different flavorings into the masa itself, not just for the filling. For the cheese and green chile tamales they mix in a puree of roasted poblanos with tomatillo salsa. The recipe asked for three packages of dried corn husks, but one package was more than adequate.

The Guatemalan tamales have achiote sauce mixed into the masa; these were a real showpiece, because they are stuffed with an unusual combination of roasted chicken, raisins, green olives, and achiote sauce. They were so delicious, but I have to say that the achiote sauce, as well as the roasted red pepper and achiote sauce served on them, are both WAY too salty. The next time I would omit the salt altogether.

As a former vegetarian, I sheepishly admit that I used lard for the masa in both tamale recipes. This was my first time cooking with lard, and I didn't use vegetable shortening because I think Crisco might be even more objectionable than lard. I would be interested in finding out how other people make tamales with "healthy" fats -- is it even possible?

The roasted achiote citrus chicken that went into the tamales is a fantastic recipe in itself, and it was almost a shame to stuff it into the tamales where its amazing flavor was lost among all the other strong flavors. I roasted the chicken thighs early in the day, and there were enough so that my husband and I could have just the roasted chicken and rice for lunch as a sort of preview of the dinner. The next time I would serve the chicken like this, all on its own, because it’s quite flavorful this way.

Fried plantains – one of my favorite dishes to order at Oaxacan restaurants – I had no idea they were this easy to make. Literally you just slice them up and fry them in butter. Oh my god, these were amazing. When buying plantains look for blackened skin, which means the starch has turned to sugar.

The most successful dish might have been the chiles rellenos; people were impressed with how light they were. The roasted poblanos are stuffed with a combination of three cheeses, then rolled in flour, then dipped in eggs. After frying on the stove top for a few minutes, you bake them for 10 minutes or so until the cheese is melted. I would definitely make these again, but experiment with different kinds of stuffing. The presentation of this dish is elegant – you pour roasted tomato salsa on one side of the plate, roasted tomatillo salsa on the other, with the chile relleno in the center, then serve with crema. You end up with red, white and green, the colors of the Mexican flag.

By the way, I made this meal for six people, but it could easily have served twelve! It’s a lot of food, and very filling.

Tomatillo Salsa
We all LOVED the fresh flavors in this recipe, plus it takes no time at all to prepare.

1 pound tomatillos, husked, washed, and cut into quarters
2 to 4 large jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded if desired and roughly chopped [I used 2, and did not remove the seeds]
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 medium onion, cut in half
2 bunches cilantro, stems and leaves
2 teaspoons salt [I think I used less than 1 teaspoon, as this sounds way too salty for me]

Place the tomatillos, jalapeños and water in a blender or food processor fitted with the metal blade. Puree just until chunky. Then add the remaining ingredients and puree about 2 minutes more, or until no large chunks remain. This salsa keeps in the refrigerator, in a covered container, about 3 days.
Makes 3 1/2 cups.

Roasted Achiote Citrus Marinade for Chicken
Makes 1 1/2 cups, enough for 1 roasting chicken or 1 1/2 pounds chicken legs and thighs. (I did the latter, since I was roasting the chicken to be put into tamales.)

2/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup achiote paste [see my notes about achiote paste, above]
2 to 3 jalapeño chiles, stemmed and seeded if desired
7 garlic cloves, peeled
1 Tbsp. black peppercorns
1 Tbsp. salt [I used less than this, and I think it would be okay to omit the salt altogether]
1 bunch cilantro, stems and leaves

Combine 1/3 cup of the orange juice, the achiote paste, jalapeños, garlic, peppercorns and salt in a blender or food processor. Puree until the peppercorns are completely crushed. Add the cilantro and the remaining 1/3 cup orange juice and puree until smooth.

Marinate 1 1/2 pounds chicken legs and thighs at least 1 hour or as long as overnight. Bake in a roasting pan or baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for 40 minutes, or until the meat easily pulls away from the bone. Eat eat, yum yum! (I served this for lunch with rice.)

If using for tacos or tamales, allow chicken to cool, then shred with forks.

Creamy Rajas
When I discovered that this recipe was in the cookbook, I was in heaven. I used to eat amazing tacos de rajas at the Superica Taqueria in Santa Barbara, and they were incredible; I’ve never seen them served anywhere else. The ones at Superica were much spicier than this mild version, so I may try varying this recipe in the future for more heat.

1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, halved and cut into 1/4-inch slices lengthwise
4 medium red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and julienned
4 medium poblano or pasilla chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded and julienned
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup grated manchego or Monterey Jack cheese
2/3 cup grated Cotija, Romano or Parmesan cheese

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the onions with the salt and pepper until they begin to wilt and brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the julienned red peppers and chiles. Pour in the heavy cream, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook 4 minutes or until the cream begins to thicken. Stir in the grated cheeses and remove from the heat. Serve immediately. Serves 6.

Mary Sue and Susan write, “These rajas, a traditional accompaniment to carne asada, are meaty roasted pepper strips, coated with cream and cheeses to tame the heat of the chiles. They are delicious with grilled meats, potatoes and eggs or just wrapped in corn tortillas.” The tacos de rajas at Superica are creamy rajas served on soft, warm corn tortillas.

The sangrita recipe deserves to be included here because it’s so unusual. They serve this at the Border Grill in Santa Monica as a chaser whenever you order tequila (and maybe some other beverages, I seem to recall). It’s a non-alcoholic citrus drink, but because of the cayenne pepper has a real kick. People at our dinner party loved this! We had it with sipping tequila after the meal.

2 1/4 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
5 Tbsp. grenadine syrup
1 generous tsp. salt
1 tsp. cayenne pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and process, or whisk in a bowl until blended. Refrigerate. Serve cold in shot glasses with corresponding shots of tequila. Makes 18 shots.

This mixture keeps in the refrigerator for about five days.

Notes and Links:

Border Grill, 1445 4th Street, Santa Monica, California; 310-451-1655

La Super-Rica Taqueria, 622 North Milpas Street, Santa Barbara, California, 805-963-4940

In Columbia, Missouri:

Los Tres Hermanos is the grocery store I used; it’s very easy to miss. It’s located in a strip mall at 1206 W. Business Loop 70, across the street from the cemetery and before you get to All Creatures Animal Hospital. In the strip mall it does not even have a sign, but there are posters on the window in Spanish advertising services like wiring money and phone cards. This is where I went to buy achiote paste and Mexican cheese and crema. Phone number is 573-817-2858, but both times I called on Wednesday they did not answer, even though they were open.

In my brief experience, Hy-Vee has a better selection of Mexican cheese (though prices aren’t as good as at Los Tres Hermanos). I haven’t tried World Harvest yet for any of these ingredients, unfortunately it's too far away to be convenient for me.

Schnuck’s on Forum has a better selection of produce (peppers and tomatillos) than Hy-Vee. Gerbes’ selection is pretty good too; this is where I found the banana leaves for my Guatemalan tamales.

Aldi's, on the Business Loop, is also a good place to find some Mexican ingredients, especially masa and Mexican cheeses.

What's Next?
On the menu tonight: Enchiladas Frescas and Ancho Chile Salsa. Looking forward to it!

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